Messiaen Vingt regards sur l'efant-Jésus
On 24 September 1969, John Ogdon gave a performance of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus in Warsaw. In the audience was Eugeniusz Knapik, a young composer and pianist, who later recalled that he spent the next three days walking as if in a delirium. Ten years and a day after the concert, sessions began for Knapik’s own recording of Messiaen’s monumental cycle. It should have been released in 1981, but it was a casualty of the imposition of martial law in response to the Solidarity movement, and is only now seeing the light of day.
While not getting carried away by this remarkable story, it’s clear that listeners in 1981 were deprived of an enthralling version of Messiaen’s masterpiece. It is not merely that Knapik has the dexterity and stamina to negotiate this pianistic Everest, but he also clearly understands the fundamentals of Messiaen’s approach. There is power and energy, but also space and stillness.
The spirit of Knapik’s recording recalls that of Ogdon’s (Decca). Doubtless this is partly because Ogdon’s 1969 performance was seared into Knapik’s memory, but there is also the sense in both pianists of approaching the music from the score alone. Neither had close
contact with Yvonne Loriod’s interpretation of the piece. There are some moments, such as the
coda of ‘Regard de l’onction terrible’, that are disconcertingly quirky on first hearing, for the reading is from outside the established performance tradition. Sound is rather brusque, but this is a fascinating alternate perspective.